ter•ror•ism: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion. —Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Let’s take a closer look at this. The goal of the terrorist is to change the operations, lifestyles, and structures of a society through fear and the use and threat of violence. The IRA hoped to “secure the independence” of Ireland by getting the populace to reject England’s rule and later, to take back Northern Ireland. Blowing up buses and assassinating royalty did change life in Great Britain, creating an entire industry dedicated to preventing damage from hand-set bombs, changing subway and roadway infrastructure, and policing.
In the United States, the Oklahoma City bombing brought about a litany of effects that have been put into place across the country since that terrible moment in 1995, including giant concrete barriers, vehicle impediment devices, increased Federal policing at high-risk sites, redesigned architecture, and new glass formulations. Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, our nation’s schools have adopted scores of changes in policy, building structure, juvenile counseling, security, and drills. Kindergarten students who once huddled under their desks against a nuclear cataclysm now perch there in drills about school violence. Literally hundreds of cultural references exist to this one event—songs, Law & Order episodes, books by bestselling authors, training programs, and video games. Trench coat-wearing is no longer a marker of the stuffy lobbying on K Street in Washington. It’s a person who is hiding semi-automatic handguns, a person who is gunning to mow down whoever gets in his way.
During the Bush Administration, a brief moment of controversy boiled up when the then Attorney General, John Ashcroft, sent out an official document saying his office was going to focus on environmental activists as the leading edge of domestic terrorism. Not neo-Nazis, who are more prevalent in the US than Islamic terrorists. Not border patrolling militiamen, many of whom are actively surveilled by the ATF and other Federal agencies. Environmental activists.
Now there is another wave of anti-terror priority, the Middle Eastern, Sharia-loving, dirty beard-wearing zealot. Representative King, a known IRA sympathizer, has called hearings on Capitol Hill to investigate how many Muslim Americans may really be terrorists, or are at risk of becoming terrorists. This is a witch hunt in the oldest, most anti-intellectual sense. This flies in the face of history, of religion, of common sense, and common decency. To look only at terrorism as an infiltration of brown people against European, white values is to erase the damage white people have caused across the globe, to forget that hello, not all Arabs and Arab-Americans are Muslim, and to ignore other threats of terrorism in our midst, which necessarily puts all of us at greater risk.
Sure, if we take the Jared Loughners of the country and mark them simply as crazy, we needn’t ask ourselves if they are terrorists, if they have shaped our psyches and practices through coercion. We can say that Andrew Joseph Stack III, who intentionally flew into an Austin IRS building, and Joseph von Brunn, who shot and killed people at the Holocaust Museum in DC, were sad, troubled men, devoid of any terrorist training camp experience. We love to paint the shooters as insane and full of mental, emotional defects, because it obfuscates the fact that they have race just as much as anyone else does. They are the products of their environment and society just as much as Obama bin Laden is of his.
But the man who planted a bomb in Times Square that didn’t explode and didn’t so much as wound anyone has been given a life sentence. Where is his mental illness write-off? He must be part of a larger terrorist syndicate, be somehow more evil than these other men who collectively, have killed more than a dozen people. No, if he says he’s working on behalf of Muslims everywhere, it must be true.
We run the risk of fooling ourselves when it comes to terrorism. The first head of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, advised Americans, in the wake of any attack, to seal off all of their windows and doors with plastic and duct tape. So we could slowly suffocate ourselves? He created a color-based fear—I mean threat—system so that all of us could worry a certain amount that on any day, we could have our lives ended or upended. New phrases entered our common lexicon: IEDs, “dirty bombs,” al Qaeda, WMDs, unknown unknowns. The way in which we react to each other has shifted, in part because of these events, but also because we have consumed the fear-mongering for a full decade now. The chants of “USA, USA,” have given way to the vitriol people presume is justified. The cost of this consumption is troubling: hate crimes against Arab-Americans has spiked, the Patriot Act has severely curtailed our freedoms and privacy, and our beloved country launched its first pre-emptive war against another country, and now more than 40,000 US troops and Iraqi citizens are dead, with tens of thousands more maimed for life.
We must talk about terrorism, yes, no question. But we also need to have some serious conversations about who we are as a people, what we’re doing to fix our economy, how we can support each other, and what our real role is in the future success of our nation and the rest of the world. Because if I know one thing, it is that it’s not all going to come crashing down because of a few thousand terrorists scattered around the globe. It will be because of our own home grown fear.